I have started and stopped this entry at least a dozen times in the last few years. This is a contentious topic, for what is basically a weed. Let’s start with facts.
1.) Pokeweed is absolutely toxic.
2.) People can die from eating it.
3.) People eat it anyway.
Pokeweed is native to North America. It is everywhere and can be really invasive. It gets these giant radish like roots (I’m talking about Spirited Away radish god sized roots) and once it gets a start, the only way to get it out is to dig the root up. I’ve broken shovels getting them out of the ground. It is an annual battle. There is a fairly good Wikipedia article about them HERE. and Ohio State University has another fantastic article HERE.
This is what it looks like in it’s mature stage. The red stalk with green rubbery leaves is a dead giveaway. Even when the leaves are only an inch long in a sprout, that red on green is a dead giveaway.
When it is fully mature, it will begin to get long white berry clusters that eventually get the same red stems and dark purple black glossy berries. That is often the only part that wild life eats, and it is birds. This plant is so toxic that animals won’t eat it. Let that sink in for a moment. Deer won’t eat it. Domestic animals WILL eat it, and thousands of them are poisoned nationwide every year, but wild animals won’t touch it. This is what a berry cluster looks like.
What makes poke so toxic is phytolaccatoxin and phytoaccigenin. Both of which will kill you dead. Small quantities will only make you WISH you were dead. The roots of the poke have the highest concentrations of toxins, followed by the greens (which get more toxic the older they get) and the berries are the lowest n toxins. People regularly get poisoned eating poke, often children who eat the berries.
For some reason that I cannot understand in the slightest, people love to eat poke. There are entire festivals devoted to it. There is some sort of bravado and pride in those who eat it. I can’t tell if it is because of the brush with danger or what. Yes, yes, yes, I know that they advocate only the greens, when they are less than blah blah blah high and some say you have to boil them twice and change the water while other swear by cooking them in bacon grease and I’ve heard countless times about how grandpas, grandmas, aunts, uncles, cousins, neighbors, best friends and on and on eat it and they haven’t died…. bully for them.
Fact: People get sick and die from eating pokeweed. Here’s a little info about poke poisoning HERE.
So the questions becomes.. why do they do it? Well, culture plays a part in it; bravado does as well. The element of danger perhaps attracts some folks. You want danger and wild greens? I have two words for you: Stinging nettle.
For some, it is the only wild green they know about, which is sad because there are better, more available, more nutritious and delicious greens available WAAAY before, during and after Poke comes up. Which greens you ask? Dead Nettle, Stinging Nettle, Henbit, Chickweed, Chenopodium (commonly called Lambs quarters) Plaintain, and Smartweed just to name a few. For those whose arguments are that it is the only green available THIS is the size they advocate eating, and there is Smartweed by the bucketful around it.
So to head the lambasting off at the pass- yes, I have eaten poke. It was at a festival both braised in bacon fat and boiled. It was disgusting. Before you claim that the chef didn’t cook it correctly, he had received some sort of award for his dishes at the very same festival. Poke just sucks.
No I didn’t get very sick, and obviously didn’t die, but I found that I did have the racing heart and thready pulse afterwards. It wasn’t pleasant. It didn’t taste good, at all. I wouldn’t even eat it if I was starving, because there are such better greens available. That can be eaten raw. No death. If you REEEEALY like your food dangerous, go pick some Stinging Nettle. It has to be cooked, yes, but it tastes good, won’t kill you, is good for you is much, much, MUCH more plentiful, and dangerous. It isn’t called “stinging” nettle for no reason.
My short and sweet opinion of poke? Don’t. Just don’t. Learn other wild greens. I am not a fan of anything that requires complicated cooking to render it “safe” and what kind of texture is left after multiple water changes? Just don’t.